This 1996 Chinese production from director Wu Tianming is begin given new life thanks to the wise folks at First Run Features. Winner of more than 25 top honors at film festivals worldwide, The King of Masks is a beautifully created and loving tale about a lonely old magician, Wang (Zhu Xu), who is nearing the age where he should be handing down the secrets of his magic to his son.
Sadly, there is no son.
It is a time in China with rampant flooding and homelessness, and in the next city there is a baby market where parents seek cash in exchange for those who wish to purchase their children. Wang visits this market, but he does not find anyone until he is about to leave and a young urchin cries out "Grandpa!" from the crowd. Taken by this small boy, Wang pays $10 for the 8-year-old and returns him to the boat where they will live. Together, they will study the ancient art of silk masks.
The King of Masks is that rare foreign film that would be a sublime viewing experience even for children, though it's worth noting that it is in Mandarin with English subtitles. The 102-minute film is set in the 1930s and Tianming does an extraordinary job of weaving past into the present in both the production's design and how culture plays such a vital part throughout the film. The film focuses much energy on the young child, whom Wang affectionately nicknames Doggie, along with a pet monkey. As the child's secrets are revealed, the story becomes both beautiful to watch and important to tell.
Chinese filmmakers have long had a gift for weaving fables into stories set in what could simply be called "real life." This is very much what Tianming does with The KIng of Masks. It's a remarkably gorgeous film with performances by Xu and young Chao Yim Yin that are vulnerable yet self-assured. Wei Minglun's story is ultimately a story about two people bound together by fate and suffering whose redemption comes from the power of love. It is both a culturally relevant tale and a universal one.
In China, it is imperative that Wang, or any man really, have a son to whom he can pass down both his secrets and the responsibility for them. As the story unfolds, we learn (and this is widely known) that Doggie is, in fact, a young gril. It is a revelation that could end up costing Wang and Doggie everything as the story continues.
The King of Masks is a simple, innocent and graceful story about love, art, and the heart of loneliness. If it were to be framed in contemporary language, one might also call it a film about "family of choice." The film was Tianming's first film after returning to China after several years in the U.S. and one can see where it is both an artistic statement with integrity and, at least in subtle ways, a political statement.
Mesmerizing and unforgettable, The King of Masks will win your heart.